How to Embrace Your Psychological Strength with April Seifert

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing April Seifert, a positive psychology guru, all about psychological strength and how it relates to recognition. You can read our interview below.

 

 

Sarah:   
I wanted to introduce you to April Seifert who is a positive psychology guru and her whole area of expertise is around psychological strength. And it occurred to me when I was on her podcast, I have never drained the well of the research, the knowledge and brilliance around how the concept of psychological strength is probably one of the key variables that can either enable or interfere with people’s ability to accept and give compliments and recognition and acknowledgment. I thought what an incredible opportunity for us to have a second conversation, April. Thank you so much for your time today. Can you first start by telling us what is psychological strength?

April :       
Yeah. Psychological strength. We like to think about it as a cultivated ability. It’s a set of skills around resilience and confidence and the ability to turn your mind into one of your biggest, most valuable assets instead of having it be more of a liability. And unfortunately, and we can probably get into some of this because it definitely relates to the work that you do, the way that our minds are naturally inclined to go for a number of reasons is in the direction of, just given our modern society, of our mind being kind of a liability for us. And there is a set of skills and there’s a set of think exercises the same way that you would strengthen your body. There’s a set of things that you can do to help your mind say adapt and work more in your favor in the environment that we’re in, in this modern world. So we think about psychological strength is something that you can cultivate in order to make your mind more of that asset for you.

S: 
And before we jump too far into the details, how does this then do you think relates to why people are often very hesitant to accept acknowledgment? How does our brain get in the way of that? Because it seems on the surface like wouldn’t everybody want to feel good? Wouldn’t that make us feel good? Why wouldn’t we want to take it in? But I’m guessing there’s an element around that barrier.

A:   
Yes. Yeah, very much so. There are about, I would say a small handful say five-ish, really key fundamental bottom line processes that you need to understand about your mind to really unlock more of a clear understanding of how it might be working both for and against your own best interest. And one of those key things is that our minds really crave consistency and simplicity. And it wants to understand the world in the most, like, the easiest, most straightforward way possible. And that’s great. That’s adaptive a lot of the time. But where it’s not and we think about consistency, our minds look for consistency between things that we already, and I’m going to throw air quotes around this “know” about ourselves and things that we already believe about ourselves. One key, and this isn’t the whole story, but one key reason why it can be very difficult to accept a compliment or recognition from someone else is if you don’t at your core believe that what that person is saying is true about you.

A:       
If you don’t believe that your ability really is exceptional in that way, or what you did really was out of the ordinary or went above and beyond, if you don’t believe that your mind is going to crave simplicity, crave consistency and it’s going to start throwing you thoughts and emotions that start to contradict what that person is saying. So that can be something as simple as you’ve probably experienced that yuck feeling when you’re like, Oh God, I mean man, that just didn’t, I don’t know. I don’t know if that…?

S:       
Takes a lot of energy. Like cognitive bandwidth to process that. And so it’s almost like instead we just shirk it off and we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And it can have negative ramifications because not only of course do we not benefit from the compliment, but sometimes we can offend or detract that other person of giving us or others acknowledgement again.

S:   
I hear what you’re saying and you know, it sort of reinforces one of the things that I tell folks, which is find out what other people most value and appreciate. Like how they define their strengths and their gifts and what they want to contribute. Because I can imagine that it’s a hack around that hard wiring of our brain around consistency and similarity. If I see myself this way and I value this and you notice it, not only is it more meaningful to me, but probably my brain is less likely to struggle with processing that. Would that seem fair to say?

A:    
Very much so. It’s a way to have a compliment or some recognition land a little bit better with another person. But even going beyond that, there are techniques that you can do to help yourself in that situation. Both typically, I would say when you’re on the receiving end, but as you start to notice those thoughts and feelings that are starting to question, we like to say, we joke in this work that we do around building psychological strength that you do not have to believe every thought that you have. Your mind just sends you thoughts in a constant stream every single day.

A:       
This is incredibly well-researched, but put a little distance between yourself and that thought. And the easiest way to do that is to recite to yourself. Not… Don’t say to yourself, wow, I really don’t deserve that compliment. Instead put just the smallest psychological distance between you and that thought. Wow, I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that I don’t deserve that. It’s not that I the person, I the self, don’t deserve it. It’s I am me and I’m noticing that I’m having a thought. The thought is separate for me. This will help you out with everything from anxiety to depressive thoughts to… I mean across the board. It’s another one of those fundamental processes that if people understood it, they would be a lot better off in helping their mind work a lot better.

S:    
Well, and it’s just sort of goes back to so much of what we would teach people out of the organizational development background that I come from, which is so much of what we tell ourselves in organizations and teams and interactions is actually a story. So you’ve just reinforced that hack is about helping your mind realize that that part of that truths are actually still, most of it that we accept as truth, is our interpretation or our version. It’s a story of what we’re experienced in hearing.

A:   
Very much so. Very much so. And most of those thoughts, they’re our best guess. They’re our best assumption. They’re our best, again, way of making a consistent story out of a bunch of different information and lots of times we aren’t right or not 100% right.

S:
And I think, again, I’ll reinforce the folks and the people who tune in regularly to what I do that you’ll know like, Oh my gosh, she’s mentioning this tool again. But not everybody has heard this stuff before. So I’m going to reinforce it again. On my website, you can download the recognition assessment. And when you ask people how they want to be recognized and appreciated, there’s also a consistency in terms of how I am as a human being. So I suspect, would you agree April? If somebody were trying to detach their thought of I have a thought about this is uncomfortable, it’s better to be giving that compliment or that acknowledgment in an environment the person’s comfortable in, because to do that heavy psychological strength work while also being incredibly socially uncomfortable, such as, let’s say, getting public recognition or being centered out when somebody really prefers one-on-one acknowledgement. I’m guessing there’s only so much cognitive and emotional bandwidth we can put towards building psychological strength when there’s a whole bunch of factors competing, like feeling embarrassed, and socially… This isn’t a social situation. I prefer one-on-one.

S: 
Would that also fit with your brain research?

A:   
Very much so. So if you think about… There’s kind of two sides of the coin to the way that our minds work and I tend to, with the work that I do and the research that I’ve done, I tend to focus more on the cognitive side. Like how do our minds encode, store, use information? And there’s really if you’ve ever read that book, there’s an amazing book called Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman and Tversky are like the OGs of cognitive psychology. They’re amazing. So if you want to know like a really good in depth version of this, go get that book.

A:        
There’s two processes. There’s a very fast automatic side to our mind, and this is a continuum. Some things fall more on that fast-automatic side. This is stuff that’s like already deeply encoded beliefs, deeply encoded stories, habits that our mind has gotten into. Those thoughts that you’re having around, wow, I really didn’t deserve this. Wow, this seems out of line with how I would think about myself. Is that really… Wow. That chatter is very automatic for your mind or more so on that side. On the slow side is the more deliberative process that we’re talking about where I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that I don’t deserve this. That’s a deliberate thought that you’re forcing yourself to have.

A: 
Now those two processes, automatic stuff, it’s extremely difficult to derail it. It just happens like almost on autopilot. It’s our minds adaptive way of saving energy. Right? Gorgeous. Lovely. Where, again, it breaks down is that deliberative side of doing the hard work. It can be derailed when you’re tired, when you’re distracted, when you’re emotional, when you’re hungry, when anything like that throws you off your game. It throws off that deliberative thought process. So to your point, if you’re already in a situation that is just all consuming, you’re going to have less of an ability to do some of that work. The stronger you get, the more you can do it in those more difficult environments, you’ll get better at it. But if you’re just starting out doing some of this deliberative, it’s called diffusion work, distancing yourself from your thoughts, if you’re just starting out, you might do it in the most comfortable places with the easiest thoughts to bat away. Start there and build from there.

S:   
Nice. Now you had mentioned that there were five core processes that you thought would be related to this work. Have we covered more than one because you have already shared so much value and insight.

A:                                        
Yeah, we have. I mean the thing that you need to understand about your mind and I’ll try to sum them all up into just sort of a big package.

A: 
The thing that you need to understand about your mind, again, it goes back to that continuum of automatic versus more deliberative thoughts. The whole goal of our brain is to help keep us alive and help us survive in a very complex world while using the least amount of energy possible, right? We want to have something left in the tank at the end of the day, and so to do that, it develops this set of automatic processes that run really quickly in the background. This can be anything from, if I say, tell me what dogs are like. If you’ve had experiences with dogs that have been negative and bad, your mind will instantly start to send you information that’s fear provoking. You might’ve had a fear response versus if you’ve had different experiences, you might have a really lovey, squishy sort of response to dogs. That’s one just benign example.

S: 
Well, I love that example though because it immediately made me think about why some people come up to me after a keynote and they love the idea of recognizing their people more. However, they’re hesitant. Cognitively it makes sense. And often for some of the people that I’m thinking about, they need the cognitive makes sense for them to be willing to consider going out on a limb and try more of it. However, I think what you just described, a penny just dropped for me and it’s the I’ve had a negative experience in the past. This is creating an uncomfortable feeling for me. Not only you might not naturally feel it’s easy to recognize people, I may have grown up with the concept in my school environment and my work environment in my home environment with you have to go be an exceptional performer just to be acknowledged.

S:  
And so now I have to then even further stretch out my comfort zone. And I have to be, people think, emotive when it comes to recognition. And I just try to assure people that no, you’re not trying to morph yourself into a different human when you’re recognizing people. If you really value hard work, getting things done, being accurate, there’s lots of those examples around you. So just notice the things that you want to see more of as opposed to try to shape-shift yourself into this version of whatever you thought that I was trying to suggest you be as a leader.

S:    
Thank you for that. Because if people are aware of what they like recognition to. Like what type of, you know, to use your metaphor, dog is it? Is it like a scary dog? Is it a fluffy dog, is it a useful dog? Like what is your current state of viewing it so that you can really evaluate the story. Is that truly the only breed of dog when it really is to recognition and how actually might need make it really useful, purposeful, productive type of vehicle in my relationships and in my organization and team.

A: 
Right. And another piece of that that again, we mentioned our mind tries to keep us safe and make the world consistent and easy to understand using the least amount of energy possible. There’s a reason why our minds tend to lean in a negative direction, right? Negative news sells. And negative messages seem, you know… Right. Have you ever looked at one of your YouTube videos, and you have five hundred thumbs up and two thumbs downs and you’re staring at those thumbs down? Like what are those people thinking? What did I say? Oh my gosh. And it’s ridiculous because there’s two. They could have hit it by accident. Who knows? But that’s what we focus on. And part of that is our mind trying to help us and see threats because the part of our mind that sees threats evolved so long ago when there actually were mortal threats on a daily basis and we don’t evolve that quickly.

A: 
Now we’re in an environment where that’s not the case, but we still see threats. In the case of recognition, a threat can be interpreted in a lot of ways. One way being anything I’m not used to seeing in my day to day life. If you’re not used to getting recognition, if you’re not used to being recognized for a particular act that you did, or talent that you might have or, or whatever the case may be, your mind could be interpreting that as a threat because it’s not something that it’s used to and it’s saying, Hey, look at that thing over there. We aren’t used to seeing that. We should probably stay the heck away from that because new things could be negative. They could be threatening. And so we tend to gravitate away from things like that and interpret them in a negative way, unfortunately.

S: 
Yeah. And what a great conversation that could be, rather than just simply saying to individuals, whether it be a team of senior team members or it’s frontline staff, we need to appreciate each other more full stop. But actually encourage people to reflect on what their experiences have been related to acknowledgement and recognition, and it allows people perhaps to get some perspective before they go and they start trying this or getting uncomfortable with trying this. Or even if they’re comfortable and other people aren’t. Just to embrace it and acknowledge that people will be more tuned into when it doesn’t work.

S:    
One of my more recent books that I know you and I’ve talked about, Flip Side of Failing, is what if you expected not everybody would take your recognition well? What if you just expected that some people would find it uncomfortable? What if you expected that some people would then be critical and response to you as opposed to this is going to be the beacon of connecting all of us and people are going to think I’m the most amazing leader and peer now. It’s just, you know, if when people are tuned in immediately to threats and negativity and self preservation and protection, to acknowledge that it’s just a human factor, and that you can detach yourself from the outcome of that I’m giving recognition. And then as the skill or the worthiness of it is not dependent on people’s reaction because you cannot control people’s reaction.

A:   
That’s so true. And something else that I would throw into that too, is every person in your organization, you as a leader, I assume that most people in a leadership position, they have the best of intentions. They want to make sure that their people feel valued and understand the committee or the work that they’re doing has value and is helping the organization. But each one of those individuals has their own history of, you know, you mentioned it, families, and in school, and that type of thing. One of the biggest things that we just as humans, you know, on our podcast interview we talked about the PERMA factors, these factors that positive psychology tell us are the biggest factors that lead to people thriving even in the worst of times. Like I’ve interviewed people who have been through the Holocaust and cancer and, I mean, you name it. And these factors show up for those people because they got them. They thrived through adversity.

A:   
But regardless, these factors are very important. And one really key one is relationships. Close relationships. You could have a person who was once recognized for something and that led them to be alienated from other people that they wanted to be close to. And so, our minds are predisposed, again, keep us safe. One way to keep us safe is to have close relationships and people around us that we can rely on both emotionally and just functionally day to day. If recognition is leading those people to distance themselves from you, your mind is going to throw off these alarm bells like, wow, this is a really scary threatening thing because these people are going to leave me if I’m seen as doing too well. So it can be a really scary thing for a lot of different nuanced reasons.

S: 
That’s why it brings such an important point to light that this is why I’m always talking about creating recognition cultures. Because the more it seems like it’s an exclusionary thing, it’s based on tenure and the highest achiever or employee of the month or very, very sort of a static and transactional type of recognition initiatives that frankly, people don’t say that they want those types of recognition anyway. As opposed to part of the way in which things happen around here, which is one of the signs that something’s bleeding into our culture and become part of part of our daily world. The lesson is an awkward thing or a juxtaposition. The less likely that people are going to feel like you’re getting all the recognition and I’m not, or you’re not one of us, now you’re one of them.

S:    
I like to say peer-to-peer recognition is one of the best ways to fuel that culture recognition. And this is one of those perfect reasons. Some of the cultures that I speak a lot for, you know, like healthcare for example. We have collectivist cultures where we are one of many. And standing above the pack sometimes you get tall poppy syndrome where you shine too bright, your head gets lopped off. Somebody will bring you back down to size. And it’s not that we don’t have really good, wonderful caring people. Although that point around somebody stands out and yet really the social norm is to be one of the group and we set that up. The context. The environment that we work in sets up the collectivism much more so then than it is about individuals standing out.

S:    
I think we need to acknowledge the context of the environment where these sorts of things are happening and the more we encourage it to be just a fluid experience, as opposed to be these discrete, unique things, allows people not to perhaps feel quite so threatened. Would you agree?

A:    
I would totally agree, and I would add to that. What I love about the notion of it not being tied to discrete events is think about what happens at those discrete events, right? Maybe at your annual review or in particular times when you’re being promoted, what happens? You get more money, right? Money gets brought into the equation. Now think about something like money versus recognition. Let’s be Frank. In corporate America, there’s only so much money to go around on any given, say fiscal year. We have X amount of dollars to give salary increases this year, and we have to find a way to dole them out. That means if you get a dollar, I’m not getting it. There’s a natural scarcity that is in place with something like money. Recognition is not that way.

A:     
Recognition, there’s an abundance of it to go around. But if you only give recognition at the same time that you’re giving out salary, they both start to feel scarce. It starts to feel like you just mentioned it. Oh, you’re getting all the recognition. So therefore it means I’m not. It’s not a zero sum game. Because you got recognized for something, that doesn’t mean that therefore I can’t. Again, our minds want to simplify and if stuff starts getting paired together, we’re like, okay, great. These two things the same, but they’re not. And so the quickest way I would imagine, and I’m not as deep into this particular area of research as you are, but I think you could probably destroy a culture of recognition by only pairing it with salary increases and other scarce entities like that because it starts to feel scarce.

S:   
And similarly, when we do that, we also begin to attach it with other scarcity things like time. I only have so much time. One of the biggest things that I hear from leaders is, well, how do I keep it going? Because I only have so much time. And I’ll say, well, what are you doing already in your working day or your working week that you could team it with? So have the thank you cards on your desk already so there’s no additional steps of going to get them and have them printed, have them created. If you have an assistant to have him or her tell you what big things deserve acknowledgement, and then you personally put your own spin on that. You know, find a way to manage the scarcity.

S:    
Similarly, with your point around, there’s only so much money. If the only the money is attached to these really big awards that are only given out once a year or it’s only based on that whole antiquated notion we heard about in the eighties and nineties back when there was of course, downsizing and all kinds of other negative implications that reinforced the scarcity mentality that people will only be able to get rewarded and the bottom 10% you’re all gone.

S:  
It’s just all the more in terms of a negative view about that as opposed to what I’m seeing a lot of organizations do and that is instead of the leaders control the gift cards, there’s gift cards available that are $2 allotments. Which is enough for a coffee at Tim Horton’s in Canada. A Starbucks, maybe not so much. He’ll need two acknowledgements for that. But the point is that anyone can give those out. So the same amount of money that was allocated for the bigger gift cards now get dispersed and there’s more gift cards and anyone can give them out. And now we don’t need as many checks and balances with it has to get approved by this person in eight sign offs and all of those barriers we create an organizations.

S:    
I’m hearing so many beautiful examples of how the brain is naturally set up to support us and also that there are some things we need to understand. And there’s so many similarities about the natural constraints and also abundance. And in The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek talks about in organizations, too. How do we leverage the best of what we’ve got and manage the limitations that exist? So April, is there anything, any other closing comments that you wanted to share that would really help truly leverage the exponential power of recognition in this abundance oriented way that you’ve been talking about?

A:      
This is going to sound like a little bit of a cop out, but I really mean this in the sincerest of ways. I think people need to turn to experts like you to help them think in a more out of the box way. And here’s why. Again, I keep going back to the same foundational principle. It’s because it’s pretty much just how the brain works. It’s actually fairly simplistic when you boil it down from a cognitive standpoint, we want things to be consistent. We want it to be easy. And because of that, people get into these notions and these habits and these ruts of, Oh, this is how recognition happens. It happens once a year, and we had do it with our annual salary increases and the boss does it to the people on their team and blah, blah, blah.

A:      
That’s just the habit that we know of. The heuristic, the schema, whatever psych term you want to use. It’s very difficult for people whose job it isn’t to sit and think about these things day in and day out. It’s very difficult for them to break out of that because again, their mind is like, I don’t know, just get through the day using the least amount of energy as possible so we have something in the tank when we get home after work.

A:   
For someone like you whose job it is to sit and really think about a topic like this, people can turn to you and get these quick ideas that change the game completely. The notion of a million tiny little gift cards instead of one big one, that’s game changing. And not something that people would naturally think of because that’s not where they’re putting their energy during the day. But that’s where you’re putting your energy.

A:  
It sounds like a bit like I’m sort of batting the question away, but there’s a reason for it because we’re not naturally set up for creativity to come out of nowhere. It’s something that we have to work on a little bit and spend some time in a particular area. And you’ve done that for people in this area. So I would say come to experts like you. Take those ideas and test them out and be okay with the fact and give yourself a little bit of grace that it wasn’t something that you thought of. That’s okay. You’re spending your time and your cognitive energy doing something else. That’s why we go to people like you who spend their time in particular areas like this that are so important.

S:   
Well thank you, April. And just because I have the good fortune of being able to spend my days doing this, actually my best ideas come from what other people are doing and sharing what’s working somewhere else. Because if it’s working one place, what’s the likelihood that it could work somewhere else? And so you know that it actually works for, in terms of the brain consistency, managing a limited amount of bandwidth as well. It allows me to conserve and best utilize my energy and not be trying to create new solutions. All the timing just to be able to have the novelty of the new idea. It’s about sharing the best ideas of what are already working out there. Now for people who want to really elevate their peak performance, whether it be their mindset or in their teams, their organizations. How can people reach out to you?

A:      
You can find us at our website. If you want to try out just a little quick hit of some of the work that we’re doing, we have an absolutely free product called the Peak Mind Starter Pack, and we’re constantly cycling new content in and out of there. So there’s some self identity diagnostics in there. There is some really powerful stuff from both the fields of cognitive and clinical social positive psychology.

 

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